Dave Boling

Ex-NFL referee on botched Seattle Seahawks-Detroit Lions call: If it’s correctable, then correct it

Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright prepares to bat Calvin Johnson’s fumble out of the back of the end zone late in the fourth quarter Monday night. The play — which is illegal by rule — went out the back of the end zone and was ruled a touchback, which helped Seattle beat Detroit.
Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright prepares to bat Calvin Johnson’s fumble out of the back of the end zone late in the fourth quarter Monday night. The play — which is illegal by rule — went out the back of the end zone and was ruled a touchback, which helped Seattle beat Detroit. Staff photographer

Just for a little light reading, I scrolled through the online copy of the NFL rules to search for the segment on “Illegal Bats and Kicks.”

Nearly 45,000 words of gibberish later, I came upon the rule that applied to the pivotal play in the Seattle Seahawks-Detroit Lions game on Monday night.

In the final two minutes, Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright batted a Lions fumble out of the end zone with impunity when the rules state his act should have been flagged, thus giving the ball to the Lions in great position to win the game.

In the absence of the appropriate call by an official with a good vantage point, Kam Chancellor’s superhero-forced fumble allowed the Hawks to hold on for a 13-10 Seattle victory.

It was the culmination of a series of errors by both teams. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson lost two fumbles in the fourth quarter, and the Seahawks’ defense that had been brilliant allowed the Lions to drive 90 yards before stellar receiver Calvin Johnson fumbled away the chance for a huge upset.

But among the flurry of blunders, it was Greg Wilson’s unthrown flag that is the focus of national debate.

Former NFL official and supervisor of officials Jim Daopoulos saw the play on television, and said he started begging Wilson, the back judge, to throw his flag.

“I know the back judge really well, and he’s a really good guy and a good veteran official,” Daopoulos said. “As soon as I saw it, I was thinking ‘Where’s the flag?’ It was just a mistake on their part that unfortunately gets magnified on Monday Night Football, and because of the implications it had in that game.”

The play, considered a judgment call, is not open to being reversed by replay.

And that’s a problem.

Dean Blandino, NFL vice president of officiating, announced after the game that the ruling was botched, and that the back judge felt that Wright’s contact with the ball was inadvertent.

As Daopoulos explained, there’s “no subjectivity in that illegal batting call — it has nothing to do with being intentional or overt.”

Daopoulos was on the field as an NFL official for 11 seasons, and then spent 12 seasons as a supervisor of officials. He has served as a rules analyst for ESPN and Monday Night Football.

“They have the mechanics in place with replay, and when you can correct a correctable error you should be able to,” Daopoulos said when asked how to avoid a repeat of Monday’s problem. “Not a judgment call, like pass interference or holding, which are subjective. But these kinds of plays should be reviewed, replayed and corrected.”

So few people, including Wright, knew what the rule was. Wright could have recovered the fumble and it would have been a touchback, too. Or if the ball went out of the end zone, as it appeared ready to, it again would have been a touchback. Wright actually did the one thing that should have given the ball directly back to the Lions.

A bang-bang play like that in real time, with the game on the line and reliant on an obscure rule, is tough on even a veteran official.

Consider: There are more than 400 words in the rule book on shoe regulations. There’s a whole segment on the inflation pressure of game balls, and their chain of possession. Why in the world would they ever need those rules? Who would try to manipulate a game that way?

The rules still allow a player to score on a drop kick. There’s a rule that allows a team to get an undefended field-goal attempt from the spot it made a fair catch. There’s something in the rules titled a “Palpably Unfair Act,” the result of which can be a touchdown awarded by the officials.

But here’s the trickiest part: There are more rules than are in the rules book.

“We have so many things that you call ‘in the margins,’ ” Daopoulos said. “Philosophies and mechanics that are discussed in clinics and referees meetings on how we’re going to call things.”

The rule book, he said, can’t really tell you what offensive holding is, as there are degrees, and can be matters of interpretation rather than strict statutory decree.

“You look at advantage-disadvantage, where is it happening, its effect on the play,” he said. “There are so many intricacies.”

Daopoulos pointed to the recent greening of the NFL officials’ corps, and when I checked the roster, I counted 21 of the 120 officials in their first or second seasons. This, perhaps, could affect the consistency that players and coaches are looking for in the administration of the rules.

From the Lions’ standpoint, the botched call probably would fall under that heading of Palpably Unfair Act. They’ve got a beef.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, move on with the win and their fans evermore convinced that end of CenturyLink field, also site of the notorious “Fail Mary” ruling in 2012, is more Twilight Zone than end zone.

Daopoulos can sympathize with the officials and offer insight on ways the system can be streamlined and tweaked.

But he certainly speaks for all fans on one indisputable point: “I hate for the discussions all week to be about a (blown) call in the game rather than the game itself.”